The glut – morel season

 

One of the things that blows my mind about this part of the world – north-west Montana – is how much food people forage, hunt and preserve.

Australia has wild food too, enough to sustain indigenous people for 60,000 years, but aside from the obvious – seafood and game meat [yes, kangaroo!] – bush food is more subtle than the dripping berry bushes we see here in the summer.

Or maybe bush food is just less in line with modern tastes, so fewer people utilize it.

We went mushroom picking yesterday, and this morning I woke up to the funky, sweet smell of morel mushrooms drying in the dehydrator.

Morels are wild mushrooms that appear mostly in low-intensity fire sites in the spring. I’d never done any serious mushroom picking until yesterday, and my only experience with morels was that some friends gave us some dried morels a few years ago.

Because we had them, I threw a handful in a soup or stew every now and again, not really believing that the grey, dry, unscented pieces of mushroom would contribute anything to the dish.

It took me quite a few stews to realize that the elusive funky flavour was the dried morels.

I don’t actually like the smell of drying morels. It’s pretty cloying. But morels are like fish sauce, or dried shrimp – when I smell them cooking, it’s not good – but the flavour in a finished dish is somehow different, and welcome.

Knowing that it’s not unusual for people to find fields of morels, and come back with gallons of mushrooms, we took plenty of bags, and set off into some dense burn area alongside a creek and beside a logging unit.

Our kids are 3 and 6 now and can hike a few miles, and we also had my mum with us, visiting from Australia.

mum 2

Our area had some widespread wildfire last year, and the Forest Service opened up parts of the burn area to commercial mushroom pickers, so most of the burnt forest had already been canvassed – we could see clusters of hollow white morel stems under trees, cut with a knife.

No wonder the pickers had picked it over – morels are hard, if not impossible, to cultivate, so wild, foraged mushrooms are the bulk of the market, and fresh morels sell for anything between $50 to $150 a pound.

We traipsed on, over fallen, charred trees. The ground, burnt so hard, was down to clay, and after spring rainstorms, was very slippery [In Montana, we would say “slick”].

And then we found one small morel and another. The further from the road we got, the more we found, and the closer we looked, the more we stopped, the more we could spot them, the caps disguised as pinecones.

 

I was actually relieved we didn’t come into a glut of mushrooms, but rather, one or three here and there – this year, we are heading back to Australia in September, just before the major harvest/preserving/hunting season begins, and I’m being careful to whittle away at our food supplies, not build them up.

But it feels strange to go against the grain of the season – to harvest the glut, and put it away to provide a small comfort in February when nothing grows, and it seems like nothing ever will again.

I guess the morel of the story is, use what’s right in front of you.

I know that when we go back to Australia, Haak and I will apply for the permit to kill and eat a kangaroo on my parent’s property, and when mango season comes around, I’ll buy a flat and freeze the cheeks to use in smoothies later.

There is still so much I have to learn about living in my own country and climate, but what I’ve learnt in Montana about freezing, drying, fermenting and canning food has made me see a glut as more than overwhelming – to see it as an opportunity, not to be wasted.

And I’ll be on hand for morel support for any Aussies who want to work the glut more, although we’re spoilt in having a continuous season – fresh lemons and greens in mid-winter!

***I just could not stop myself on the morel puns***

 

 

 

 

 

It’s 2018 – why is female sterilization still performed more than vasectomy?

 

Sterilization [either male or female] is the most widely used birth control in the US [36%], followed closely by female hormone treatments such as the pill [30.6%].

But permanent birth control – sterilization – is vastly different for men and women in terms of cost, risk, and recovery for the patient.

According to come quick research via the Mayo clinic website, the risks of female sterilization [tubal ligation] include: Damage to the bowel, bladder or major blood vessels, reaction to anesthesia, improper wound healing or infection and continued pelvic or abdominal pain.

According to the same website, the risks of vasectomy are very low, and none are potentially life-threatening, unlike damage to the bowel or reaction to anesthesia.

So why is female sterilization [tubal ligation] still performed in the US two thirds more than male sterilization [vasectomy]?

Our family has benefited so much from Haakon’s 2015 vasectomy that I wanted to tell our story as a way to look at some of the reasons vasectomy may not be as popular as it should be.

I can’t remember how the idea that Haakon would have a vasectomy after our second child was born came up, but I know it seemed like a natural progression to me:  I’ve had two babies and lots of genital involvement around birthing [not to mention years of periods and pap tests before the babies, and after], and a vasectomy was an opportunity for something medical to happen in his body.

Although I was mildly concerned about Haakon’s vasectomy – I don’t like the idea of someone cutting into anyone’s junk any more than most people, and there is the risk of permanent complications with vasectomy – I never considered that I would, instead, have tubal ligation.

From Haak’s perspective, as a man who is pragmatic to a fault, his initial research about vasectomy made it clear that to suggest I would have the surgery instead of him would be “foolish,” he told me.

But here in Montana, I hear this all the time from women: “I was in there anyway [hospital, to have a baby] so I told them, just go on and tie my tubes. I wish Tom/Mike etc would get a vasectomy, but he would never do it.”

[About half of female sterilizations occur within 8 hours of giving birth, according to the national center for biotechnology information]

My assessment of how often female sterilization is performed over vasectomy is backed by figures provided by the national center for biotechnology information in 2008. According to their website, 27 per cent of sexually active women in the US rely on female sterilization as birth control, while 9.2 per cent rely on vasectomy.

Although the information I found online is dated, all the US-based reports I found drew from the same study, which also notes that “Overall, the sterilization rates for men and women have remained constant over the past 40 years [since 2008].”

Why is this, I wondered?

The fact that the numbers of female sterilizations are higher than male is probably influenced by the number of babies born via cesarean section – the US center of disease control and prevention website says that in 2017, 31% of all births were cesareans.

When a woman is already having major abdominal surgery and wants a permanent form of birth control, having a tubal ligation performed at the same time makes some sense.

But where sterilization is sought in stand-alone cases, vasectomy is not only faster and cheaper [“best $300 we ever spent,” says Haakon!] than tubal ligation, it is much safer for the person being operated on.

One of Haak’s co worker’s, Shannon, recently had tubal ligation surgery. I spoke to her on the phone 11 days after her surgery, and she was still using a back brace to protect her bruised stomach muscles.

She had also developed anemia and a blood clot near the surgery area which is not life-threatening but is hard and painful.

“I’m still in pain,” Shannon said, “I keep asking the doctor if this is a normal recovery because they told me I would only have to take it easy for a week afterwards.”

Shannon and her husband had been talking about permanent birth control for years, she said, and he had wanted to have a vasectomy but a history of hernia surgery made them both concerned about how suitable vasectomy would be in his case.

“Now that he’s seen me go through this,” Shannon told me, “he wishes he’d gone ahead with the vasectomy.”

Although Shannon and her husband were well informed and made the best choice for them, its clear that in most cases, tubal ligation carries higher risks than vasectomy.

Despite this fact, I do not want to minimize the risk of chronic pain or long-term implications for a person’s sex life, which is associated with vasectomy in rare cases.

Shannon’s youngest child is now 10, and despite her long and continuing recovery from the surgery, Shannon told me her only regret is that she didn’t do it sooner.

Having access to permanent, relatively safe birth control is indeed a treat – after muddling through ten years of using various temporary contraceptives, like condoms and the pill, Haak and I were both 100% ready to say goodbye to the possibility of pregnancy scares and all the organization required to avoid them.

And so it came to be that one sunny winter’s day in Moruya, NSW, I was waiting at a coffee shop across the street from the doctor’s office where Haak was having his vasectomy done. Callie was almost six months old, and I ordered and sat in the courtyard breastfeeding her.

My parents happened to be passing through, and they arrived at that moment.

“Should I order Haakon coffee?” Dad asked.

I paused to answer, and looked up from my half-finished flat white:

And saw Haakon, bounding down the steps of the doctor’s office. A similar image to my very first memory of him, when he was tanned and 20, and bouncing across a lawn to meet me.

“Couldn’t they do it?” I asked sympathetically, imagining that the doctor was called away or held up in some way.

“It’s done,” he answered, beaming.

And that, my friends, is the kind of after-effect of a life-changing surgery you will almost never get. Haak wasn’t even in the chair for 15 minutes and was enjoying a coffee in the sun 5 minutes later.

He still likes to tell people that the worst part about having a vasectomy was shaving his testicles in preparation for the surgery.

“The chafing from the stubble growing back was intense,” he told me this morning when I asked what he remembered most.

Haakon was “sore for a couple of days,” he recalled. He took no painkillers and was back at work three days later.

Although it’s hard for me to say if Shannon and Haakon’s recoveries are typical of the surgeries they had, it’s clear to me that something deeper than a pragmatic weighing up of the costs and benefits is in effect when heterosexual couples begin to research sterilization – something that culminates in many making the decision for the woman to undergo surgery rather than the man.

Hearing versions of the “I wish Carlos would get a vasectomy, but he would never do it,” conversation over the years has made me realize how our society ensures that the only genital sensations men have are pleasurable – and that women support this idea as much as men do.

It’s certainly been said before, but I’ll say it again – we seem to be stuck, as a society, in a pattern of accepting at face value a woman’s responsibility for all things reproductive, from unintended pregnancies and childcare to buying the condoms.

But it’s 2018 and vasectomy just might be the way forward – a way to revolutionize our relationships and sex lives.

Haak

 

I found information for this post from these sources:

CDC website, stats about cesarean rates: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/delivery.htm

NCBI website, articles about rates of sterilization: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2492586/

Mayo Clinic, basic info about vasectomy and tubal ligation: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/vasectomy/about/pac-20384580

 

Thanks for reading!

Summertime craziness

To understand the deepness of winter in North America, you must also understand the intensity of summer, as the two are always in tension:

For example, this weekend, we have the farmer’s market Friday evening, then we’re hosting a gig and party at our house. Saturday we have a picnic for the annual general meeting of a local non-profit. Sunday friends are arriving, and we already have my mum and another Aussie friend, Michael, visiting.

Just a normal, busy weekend, right? But every single weekend from June- August looks like that. And it’s in stark contrast to a grey, snowy weekend in late January when I am literally pacing our house, wondering if I should sort through our clothes again.

It’s not that you can’t do social things in winter.

It’s just that it’s dark at 4 pm and even if the day has been sunny, if it’s wet at all, the roads start to ice up as soon as darkness falls. Going out for a drink starts to look like less fun when you imagine the slow, nerve-wracking drive home, with a possible detour into a snow bank.

And so all of the big ticket social occasions happen in summer – weddings, family reunions, graduations: even funerals are sometimes put off until the spring for the convenience of travellers.

There’s a wild berry bush here known as serviceberry, which flowers early in the spring and then produces rather tasteless and mealy blue berries, loved by bears but not often eaten by humans.

Apparently, the reason for the name is that the bush flowers when the funeral services are held – when the ground was soft enough to bury those who had died over the winter and were kept frozen in the wash-house until the time came.

Because of the length and depth of winter, there is no growth for six months of the year. None. And so all the growing must happen in summer, and growth is fast, thick and incredibly verdant once it gets going.

Today, the first light was at 5:02 am and last light will be at 10:21 pm. 15 hours of grow time for my baby plants – no wonder the beans will seem to grow an inch overnight.

Three months is not long to fit in all the camping, hiking, gardening, food production, and outdoor projects in our lives, and the end result is a kind of frenetic breathlessness as we cram our days with tasks and try to sit out the yard with a beer at the end of the day as well.

Summer days here are stunning – beginning with cool [no, cold. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, which is 4 degrees Celcius!] mornings with the incredible damp smell of cottonwood buds, reaching 80- 100 degrees and ending 15 hours later with the pink glow of sunset on the still snow covered mountains.

We are a few weeks away from summer heaven – when strawberries are still falling from bushes, cherries are reddening on trees and raspberries are abundant. This kind of luxurious, un-netted fruit harvest makes me realize the scale of Australian birds. I miss the noise of Aussie birds, so coarse and constant when I’m in Montana, but what a fight to harvest a berry!

In late August, we will be in full harvest in the garden, but simultaneously start watching the forecast for a frost and scurry around with frost cloth, hoping to ripen just one more pepper on the bush.

Then one day – bam! it’s over.

There’s a line in a Waif’s song [Vermillion] that I always think about at the end of summer: “She got old, she got idle as a picture/she died with the flowers in the fall.”

Seeing bright zinnias in their prime knocked down by an early frost is always sad. This year we’ll leave – maybe before that frost – and head straight into an Aussie summer.

It’s no secret that I don’t love winter in North America, but there is something wonderful about collapsing into a routine of cosy indoor time after a hard working, hot, activity-packed summer.

cropped-img_0146.jpg

 

The nearest thing

I saw an online article from my hometown newspaper, The Bega District News, this morning. “Police hunt for armed man,” was the headline, and the first sentence: “police are searching for a man believed to be armed with a knife and hammer.”

As I followed the story over the course of the day, a tragedy became clear – this man had fatally stabbed a woman and seriously injured another man.

But it’s terrible – my first response reading the headline was to laugh. A HAMMER???

I laugh because I’m so enculturated to Montana and the US now, that anything less than guns blazing seems like de nada.

The hammer detail reminds me of what I wrote about in All we have to do is nothing: kids having strong feelings and irrationally lashing out, with whatever’s closest to hand.

What’s at hand here in Montana is guns. The gun you see in this image I found on a friend’s porch a few weeks ago – the contrast of metal and the pretty cover was captivating, but the reason the gun was there pragmatic: it was on hand for shooting squirrels nesting under their house.

Around the same time I came across that gun, I went out for a short hike in a cedar forest with our family and Haakon’s parents. In the car park, as we gathered sweater’s and hat’s, as it is cool in the cedars, a young couple were also getting ready to hike.

The guy busied himself strapping a handgun to his right thigh while the woman put granola bars in her pockets.

These moments happen so often here that I’m almost used to them, but somewhere in the back of my mind, the Australian in me is still confused: why the gun to hike in a fairy-glen? For an instant, my mind jumps to the worst scenario: maybe he brought her here to kill her. Maybe he will kill us all.

This guy probably thought he was protecting himself, and others, against bears [and lions! wolves!]. The problem here is that HE knows he’s a good guy. HE knows he’s a good shot.

I have none of that information.

All I know is that he feels unsafe for some reason, amongst the giant trees, the ferns, the crystal clear creeks.

Study after study has shown human fatalities in bear attacks are lower when we carry pepper spray, not guns. Pepper spray has a wide range compared to a bullet and can spray up to 30 feet, so a panicked hiker need not be accurate to let the charging bear known he is not worth messing with.

Last night I was in the woods, but high above the bears: lucky enough to be drinking wine in a treehouse with a bunch of lovely women.

One woman, Jen, I had only met once before, and I got to hear a bit of her story. Jen grew up in the nearby town of Libby but had most recently been living in New Mexico with her husband and daughter.

One of the reasons she had moved back here was because there was a shooting at the school where she worked as a middle school math teacher, and she thought it was less likely to happen here.

Is it? I don’t know. Our school community has recently formed a safety committee and held public meetings to discuss whether or not to arm teachers at our school’s.

“Arming teachers is not the solution,” Jen said last night “but having armed security guards is a deterrent.”

I kinda think if you are desperate enough to think that going to a school to shoot kids is a good idea, you are past assessing risk or caring about the threat of your own suffering, or death.

I am in awe of Jen, although I only just met her, for marching her students to safety on the day of the shooting.

“Some of them were crying because they saw the two who died, they saw it happen,” Jen said.

Mostly I admire how much she still wants to teach math, and be in schools.

This morning, Haak and I stood by the stove together in the pale sunlight, waiting for coffee to brew, and while we waited I told him Jen’s story.

“I just read that so far this year there are more people who have died in schools than in the US military,” Haak told me “so skip high school and go straight to the military – it’s safer!”

We lean towards each other, laughing in short, sad bursts, because what else can we do?

Next time Atticus goes to school, in Australia, I’ll worry about him losing his backpack, or breaking an arm falling off the monkey bars. I’ll worry about him being so excited he runs into a pole and gets a concussion.

I’m so relieved I won’t have to worry about him being shot at school anymore.

When someone is having so enraged, so irrational they could just pick up the nearest thing and use the force against anyone nearby, what do we want that thing to be?

A few months ago, I interviewed a handful of locals about the gun’s they own. A neighbor of ours, a very good man, told me that in his collection of 17 guns, he has a shotgun he keeps behind the bedroom door in case of intruder’s.

While I was there, he went to check on it. He came back, holding a gun: “actually, there were two back there,” he chuckled.

Guns are everywhere, man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Champagne lifestyle on $20,000

Although the title of this post is a bit cheeky, I chose the picture above – taken at Wallagoot beach, NSW in 2015 when we were home to have our daughter – because in that moment, I truly felt like I was living the dream.

The air was warm, the sea was warm and green, baby Callie ate sand with our friend Kat while we swam, and I felt like a dolphin.

[As any woman who has had a baby can tell you, it doesn’t take much to feel like a dolphin in contrast to the lumbering of late pregnancy!]

I recently wrote a post about living below the federal poverty line, and several people have asked me to explain how that works, exactly.

Because Haak and I have decided our marriage wouldn’t survive if one of us got to live in their homeland, and the other only got to visit their’s, we’ve moved a lot in the last ten years.

Moving a lot is not conducive to making money the traditional way – by sticking with a job or industry, seeking promotion, and networking to move up.

Because people in our communities know we are transitory, employer’s have to be willing to hire us short term. The school district here employed me as a teacher’s aid and mental health worker when I first lived here, and some of those jobs I was able to work for two years.

Haak has worked part-time at our local hardware store for the almost three years we’ve been stateside this time.

And we pick up jobs painting, building, child minding, cleaning, cooking …

When we are in Australia, our income has typically been higher, [more like 26,000-30,000] but the dollar is worth less, wages are higher, and things are more expensive, so our quality of life is similar.

[Except we drink waaaayyyy more alcohol here than in Australia – a really good six pack of local craft beer costs $7-$8.]

Especially in the six years since we had kids, working less and keeping our income low has worked with our life – we wanted to be around  when the kids were small, so we’ve chosen to do paid work 2-3 days a week and work which is not paid but adds value to our lives, saving us money, the rest of the time.

[Like how Haakon built/is building our house, so our loan is only $38,000, but the value is something like $100,000, and I make us such delicious food that we don’t even want to spend $10,000 a year eating out. Also, there is nowhere to eat out in Troy!]

Our basic monthly expenses in Montana are:

$650 – mortgage, house insurance, land taxes

$130 – utilities [sewer, electric, water]

$45 – car insurance

$150 – health insurance

$70 – phone/internet

$400 – food

$100 – gas/petrol

$10 – Netflix account.

We rent our basement studio to our friend Laura, who pays us with $200 per month and by delivering sanity playing with and helping our kids.

[An aside: I still find it hard to think in months with finances, not weeks. Australian’s are generally paid weekly, and costs are measured in week’s, or by that uncommon concept in the US: the fortnight]

We do have a credit card, which we pay every month. I think it has an insane limit – $20,000, which is our emergency money.

In the years we travel, we need to buy plane tickets – I typically search online for months and buy the ticket’s that are so insanely cheap I run out of the house screaming: Get me the credit card! NOW! [this year I found Seattle-Sydney, via Hawaii, one way, four people: $1,600]

Some of our monthly payment’s are notably low compared to the national average – it’s because we do live below poverty line*** that our kids have free health insurance, and we have cheap government-subsidized health insurance.

Also missing in our budget, but common for many American’s our age are college loans [Haakon got an amazing scholarship to attend college, and worked summers, coming out debt free] and car payments. As far as I can tell, the combination of these costs can be $300-$500 per month for many people.

Luckily, there is a strong tradition of driving old, quirky and sometimes unreliable cars in both our families, so we’ll never have to worry about car payments or the cost of comprehensive insurance.

In March this year, we lost our first half decent car [a 2007 Subaru Forester], to engine failure in Pocatello, Idaho, on the way back from a trip to Utah.

It was hard to walk away from $5000 of value, but here’s where our real riches are: in the few months we have left before leaving for Australia, we are driving Haakon’s grandma’s 1989 Toyota Camry.

Not having to replace the car because of family generosity means the money in our savings account – $6000, accumulated from our tax return and saving when I was working last year – can be used to finish siding our house, take a trip to Denver to visit relatives, and fund a few days in Hawaii on our way back to Australia.

I once went to a training when I worked for the after school program here at Troy Elementary. It was about poverty and was designed for middle-class teacher’s working in poor area’s like Troy to better understand the actions of their student’s and student’s families.

The presenter talked about social capital – how instead of buying insurance, people living in poverty rely on their community as insurance.

Although I don’t feel poor very often, this part of our reality is true.  Haak and I are so lucky that our family’s back us, not by giving us money, but with grandma car’s, mechanical help, eggs and garden produce, work connections, and the assurance that if we ever really need it, they will loan us money.

I like the way not having lots of money stops me from buying things all the time without thinking about it.

We almost never buy new clothes, except boots and shoes [and my Darling jacket!].

If I had money, I would buy all new bedding, I would buy all new, handmade mugs, I would buy a new couch … I don’t need these things… I already have them.

I like the way being poor makes me appreciate gifts SO MUCH.

A friend gave me a gift voucher to the local plant nursery this spring, and it was pure luxury to just go and get all the plants I wanted. I never would have done that on my own [thanks, Tess!].

So there is some control, some deprivation, to live within our budget.

It’s easier for Haakon than it is for me because he truly prefer’s the free and recycled, whereas I occasionally lust over new stuff, or long to travel more.

The time I most often wish we had more money is when I want to be generous – and my tactic here is usually to use money sitting in savings from the other country [for some reason it doesn’t count???].

 

We’ve had good luck and good health, and I don’t feel poor.

I feel rich.

 

How much do you make? is it too much/too little? how do you budget? save? are you in debt? have you lived below poverty line? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*** in 2017, the US federal poverty line for a family of four was $24,600

 

 

 

So much, so little

Last year I was volunteering at the Troy food pantry, and I noticed on the wall the federal poverty guidelines – $24,600 for a family of four.

But wait a second … we average about $20,000 a year when we are in the US. So are we poor? should I stop volunteering and start packing my family a box of food?

That moment in the food pantry has made me think a lot about income and how we see ourselves.

My family is a funny mixture of class values: poverty income and owning class aspirations. My parents have always operated on a low income but dealt in real estate, leaving them with a fairly comfortable retirement.

Poor is relative – when I look around Troy, I know there are people living on much less than us. Tarps cocooning trailer homes in the winter to keep them warmer. Kids whose only meals are the free ones the school offers.

But those same kids are the ones who run barefoot and wild around town in the summer – whether through negligence or intelligence on the part of their caregivers, the poor kids have the richest lives: looking for worms for hours, scrounging up $5 to buy french fries, drinking cold, fresh water from the faucet at the park.

While I’m handing over the $5, I ask these kids what their plans are for the day and they say “sit under the bridge when it gets hot” or “go and ask Justin’s uncle if we can mow his lawn for money.”

I don’t want to glorify poverty – and I don’t know what those kids live’s are like at home. But there is something about the struggle, the hunting and gathering urge, the thrill of success when they meet their own basic needs, that is sorely lacking in the live’s of the wealthy.

Is this why the average American credit card debt is $17,000? after understanding that our pay surpasses meeting our basic needs, are we purposefully creating a struggle?

Last year, we had a few friends visit, all in their mid 20’s – all had recently graduated college and moved into high paying, high responsibility jobs.

They all had the same response to their new fortune: a whispered “I don’t know what to do with all this money. I can’t even tell you how much it is, because it is just SO MUCH.”

Why do we pay some so much, more than they want or need, and some so little?

I saw a blog post last week which explained it in a few short words: privilege is the assumption that because you have more, you should have more.

 

 

Small town color and Love

I have to admit, when I first saw the brightly painted, graffiti style van parked in front of the house on the corner, I thought that whoever drove it must be transitory.

A friend said to me once that there are a collection of people who live in this town only because they broke down here.

Maybe that was the case with the occupant of the little yellow house on the corner, a rental with a historically high turnover.

But I started to notice the house’s occupant – long, burgundy hair, sometimes in pigtails – and they weren’t leaving.

Seasons passed, and a sign went up:  a long, wooden, hand-painted sign that said: “Rock’n’Roll is my religion, and Jesus is my lord.”

I’d see someone chopping wood, or mowing, and once I rode past and saw a figure in thigh-high white leather boots standing by a smoldering fire in the backyard.

WHITE LEATHER BOOTS? THIGH HIGH? dressing up in Troy means putting on a pair of clean jeans, so who was this person, and what the heck were they doing here?

Small towns like the one we live in [Troy, Montana, population 900] often have a reputation for being small minded, and less progressive and tolerant than urban areas.

But are they really? There is certainly not much in the way of diversity here, but those who are different from the majority [white, working class, heterosexual, Republican] are often tolerated with a surprising amount of loyalty and love.

I believe I’m one of those who are different but accepted. People will tell me about those damned Californian’s who come up here with their money, and all those foreigners’ coming to take our jobs …and then look at me and say “but not you. I’m not talking about you. You get it.”

People here are sometimes racist and homophobic because they don’t know any different. When I was working at the high school I had to patiently explain to a white student that saying racist things about our then president Obama while sitting next to their African-American friend is hurtful.

The white student looked at me, confused.

It became clear that the black friend was not thought of as black. They were part of the community, accepted, the ‘otherness’ put aside, the color of their skin forgotten.

So I’m not “a foreigner,” or “an immigrant,” to my fellow townspeople, although technically I am both in this country. I am their Australian, someone whose motive’s they understand, someone familiar.

I think the same is true for our bright-van owning, leather boot wearing, lace loving friend.

I’m going to tell you the story of Michaela Love, who was born Michael in Massachusetts in 1959.

“I’ve been here for two years now, I can’t believe it,” said Michaela with a laugh after I finally asked if I could interview her, and she had invited me in and offered coffee.

What do you like about being here? I asked.

Michaela answered that although she misses the city for the music scene, the boutiques, and restaurants, “I like the people [here], there are lots of really good people in this town.”

Michaela’s home is cozy, the walls of the living room lined with her extensive record collection, and crocheted afghan’s on comfortable looking chairs.  This little cottage in Troy feels a long way from her previous home in West Hollywood, where, she said, there was a big transgender and queer community.

Michaela has one whole room devoted to her clothing collection: rows of ruffled, frilly blouses and dresses hanging from every vertical surface.

closet

Michaela said that coming in with confidence and openness has helped her find a place in the community.

“There is so much hate in the world …I will never contribute to that,” she said, sipping coffee “I try to live up to my name.” Born to Irish Catholic parent’s, Michaela Love is proud of her name and that her relatives carried it when they arrived on the Mayflower [the ship that transported English adventurers to what is now New England, in 1620].

So how did her Catholic parent’s respond when, at age four, Michaela began to ask for soft nightgowns like her sister had?

“My mom is the best kind of Christian,” Michaela explained “she would say ‘it’s not our place to judge.’ It’s Christianity 101. She has always been very accepting of who I am. She still sends me blouses!”

While her father apparently struggled more than her mother with accepting Michaela’s gender identity, and took her to see a therapist [who said: “the harder Michael tries not to be a girl, the more he will be a girl”] he backed her up after she was raped at age 16 by a male neighbor.

“I finally told my father what had happened,” Michaela said “and it was too late to report it, but my father went next door and told the man ‘if you ever go near any of my children again, I will kill you.'”

Sexual harassment is an unfortunately common experience in Michaela’s life, and she has had plenty of practice with comebacks and retorts.

“A man called me a prissy little bitch recently,” she said, ” and I just said to him: well, I may be, but I’m not your bitch.”

Another incident in a nearby Montana town, bigger than Troy, was harder to come back from:

“A real red neck man in Kalispell pushed me up against a car last year,” Michaela said. “I was scared. He said ‘I bet you like that, don’t you?'” and then his girlfriend, who was there, actually slapped him. Women are protective of me. They won’t let men hurt me, and they explain that hurting me is just the same as hurting a woman.”

Even within her community, my community, Michaela is bearing the brunt of other people’s confusion and prejudice.

“I was at the bowling alley in Troy, and a man who often goes there came up and grabbed my breasts [Michaela began hormone therapy about 8 years ago, but is not currently taking hormones, because of the high cost]. The girls who work there threw him out.”

Michaela has been married and divorced twice, and her second wife was a Russian/Norwegian Victoria’s Secret model [I saw the wedding photos!].

“I would love to meet the right person, and it could be anyone,” Michaela told me “but I want to meet someone face to face, I don’t have the internet or a computer, I’m a dinosaur in a modern age!”

Although she said that “being a glamour girl is hard when there’s snow on the ground,” Michaela has no plans to leave Troy or Montana, and part of her reasoning is to help small town folks see that she is no threat.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am,” she explained “I’m not going to sneak around. And I hope that at least one kid in Troy can see me and think ‘I can be what I am too,'”

Michaela’s  life has spanned years as a glam rocker in the 80’s in LA [she was in several local bands: Black lace, Lipstick Traces, and Danger Dolls] to now: a small town retiree who spends time playing guitar and touching up the artwork on her van and making trips to Arizona to visit her parents.

I saw her painting the fence of the local biker bar next to the train tracks this spring, and she is on a first name basis with our chief of police, along with everyone else in town. She is clearly part of our town, and tells me “I bring a little color to Troy.”

van

As I hop on my bike to ride away from the little yellow house on the corner, Michaela leaves me with a final thought:

“If you don’t express who you are, you are robbing yourself of life. To thine own self be true.”